• Shelley Dark

17. South Africa Planning

I've been dreaming of doing our South African trip all over again - I'd do it in a heart beat! Here's what I thought worked, whether I'd make any changes, and booking contact details for you. By the way, I don't have any connection with any of these companies.

WHEN

Late August and early September was perfect.

The best time for game viewing in southern Africa is during the dry months of April to September. I'd prefer not to visit in the dead of winter as the days are so short and it could be very cold on the early morning and late afternoon game drives. That leaves April/May and August/September. I'm told both offer great game viewing.

At the end of the dry winter season, there are fewer water holes to drink at, and the vegetation is barest to allow for best visibility. So late August to early September seemed perfect for us, with lovely brisk mornings and evenings and plenty of baby animals.

Cape Town can be cold in August, but we were very lucky. (Times for other African countries may differ so if you're visiting those countries, best check times online).

WHERE

You may remember this was our must-see list:

  • 2 game parks - we enjoyed having the trip book-ended by a game lodge visit at beginning and end

  • 1 tribal experience

  • Cape Town

  • Wine Lands

The Matabole hide at Mashatu at dawn

You can see how small the waterhole is, and how close we are to the animals as they come in to drink. Water is trickle-fed into the hole to keep it fresh. The hide is covered with logs to stop animals, particularly elephants, from walking on top.

Parks: Our favourite day of the whole trip was at dawn on the first day at the photographic hide at Mashatu - we'd only just clambered down the ladder into the spotlessly clean sunken container, were setting up our cameras and phones on tripods and beanbags, chatting away to each other, when the guinea fowl on the edge of the waterhole suddenly ran away. Something's coming! said Janet.

We scrambled to sit on our bar stools, cameras ready, as a herd of elephants with babies suddenly appeared silently, not two metres away from us to the right of the hide. We sucked in our breath in amazement as one by one the elephants lowered their trunks to the water. Then together! A visual symphony! Then a procession of other birds and animals from a jackal to wildebeest, impala and kudu.

It eclipsed our later game sightings from the vehicles at either reserve. I'd go to the Matabole hide at Mashatu again tomorrow. We didn't see so many animals the second day when it was less favourable with overcast with a chilly wind. But that's the luck of the draw.

This is Janet Kleyn, great company and an accomplished wild life photographer who accompanied us, with our driver Kayser who went to a higher spot once he dropped us, to keep an eye on things. There's a very nice camaraderie between staff at Mashatu.

We thoroughly enjoyed Sabi Sabi too and Zwa and Aaron's excellent guiding. But if I were to do another African trip, I'd choose a different second lodge, just for variety.

Make sure you do a bush walk as well - no matter what you see, it's quite an adrenalin rush!

We spent three days at each lodge, a perfect length of time.

Tribal experience: We loved Isibindi Lodge, but we made a very big detour to go there: flight Joburg to Durban, 4.5 hour drive to the lodge and 4.5 hour drive back again to Durban and then flight to Cape Town.

We saw at first-hand the joy and dignity of the local people despite their relative poverty, and we enjoyed the description of Zulu culture by the staff at the lodge. This was reinforced by our visit to the chief's house, the local primary school, and the very enthusiastic and athletic Zulu high-kick dancing at the lodge.

Several of the staff members were part of this performance, and were very excited about it which made it even more enjoyable for us as well.

There was a very small craft boutique at Isibindi Lodge but otherwise we didn't have the opportunity to buy Zulu crafts - it was a poor offering at the trading store. We probably wouldn't do such a big detour again.

The visit from Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge to the nearby town of Huntington involved much less effort and was probably an equal cultural experience: the church and sangoma visits were both a delight.

Cape Town: We spent four full days and five nights in Cape Town and would do that again - I would add another day there just to look at more of the interior design and fashion shops. Allow plenty of time for your visit to Zeitz MOCAA.

Wine Lands: We had two and a half days in the wine lands. We could easily have spent an extra day, wandering Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. There's so much to see and do, the shopping looks great, and it's the perfect area to relax a little. And this time I would be able to eat and try the wine!

BOOKING AGENT

I considered but didn't use an agent for any of the bookings - I enjoy making travel decisions myself unless language difficulties make it difficult. I was very appreciative of the help of two friends from our local bridge club, and also my Instagram buddies.

I prefer not to use sites like Flight Centre, Webjet, Expedia or Booking.com. I book direct with the airline, hotel etc, unless the price on one of those sites is very much cheaper but most hotels etc guarantee it won't be. This way I am quite clear about inclusions, different cancellation terms etc and I can be specific about what I want. There's also a direct line of communication rather than second-hand messaging.

FLIGHTS AND TRANSPORT (with links)

We flew Qantas from Brisbane to Johannesburg return, and South African Airlines and Mango Airlines (a cheap airline - there are others) between Joburg, Durban and Cape Town. Qantas South African Airways Mango Airlines

The hotels arranged cars to and from the airports (the hotel van to Athol Place, a luxury vehicle at the Cape Grace, a Toyota Corolla to Isibindi and back) and we used the Gautrain from Sandton Station in Johannesburg for the easy 15 minute ride to the airport. Gautrain

Ubers in daylight hours in Cape Town were a cheap and perfect way to get around. The same Uber app you have on your phone here in Australia works in South Africa.

ACCOMMODATION

​Athol Place Hotel, Sandton, Johannesburg: my rating 5 star, we stayed at this suburban boutique hotel instead of an airport hotel and couldn't have been happier with the choice. It's beautifully appointed in neutral colours, a good restaurant, great staff. For one wing, there's a garden walk from bedroom to dining and reception. Athol Place Hotel

​Mashatu, Botswana: my rating 4 star, good rooms as you can see, although the dressing rooms and bathrooms are a little Fred Flintstone, excellent food, wonderful staff. This lodge has an intimate casual friendly feeling. Mashatu Game Lodge

Isibindi Zulu Lodge: my rating 3.5-4 star, adequate rooms (although the uncovered arched windows along the floor are a little alarming when you aren't fully dressed, but good for looking out at passing wild life), average infrastructure, excellent food and staff. The rondavel architecture and quality of the staff make this lodge charming and one-of-a-kind. Isibindi Zulu Lodge

​Cape Grace Hotel Cape Town: my rating 4.5-5 star, we were upgraded to a two-bedroom apartment with balcony, kitchen, sitting and dining rooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms. The breakfast was very good, staff excellent. Each floor has an added colour - our floor was botanical green. This is the ONLY hotel we stayed at where the hairdryer is in a holster in the dressing room, ready for action rather than hidden in some cupboard with the cord wound tightly a million times around the handle. Yayyy. Cape Grace Hotel

​Leeu Estates: my rating 5 star, my pick of all the hotels we stayed at, decor, garden and art sensational, didn't really test the restaurant, staff excellent. We didn't have enough time to explore the beautiful grounds. Housekeeping cleaned my shoes as they have never been cleaned before! Leeu Estates

​Delaire Graff Estate: my rating 4.5 star, jewellery store closed, food good, staff good, art amazing, stunning view from the spa pool. Our rooms had a small pool each. This hotel didn't live up to the hype. The chef made excellent chicken soup for me from whoa to go in one hour. I originally chose this over Babylonstoren - I wouldn't next time. Delaire Graff

​Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge: my rating 4.5 star, very spacious rooms, good food (although breakfast pancakes and waffles are made ahead of time and then sit waiting cold and limp), staff very good. This lodge has a slightly more formal feeling. I'd try another lodge next time. Unless they could guarantee that a leopard would walk through the lodge as one had the night before we arrived! Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge

VISA: no visa necessary for Australians for South Africa. Visa for Botswana quickly and easily available at Limpopo Valley Airfield.

VACCINATIONS: see your doctor for necessary vaccinations. We took doxycycline as an anti-malarial for Mashatu because they had a case in May this year.

MONEY: I put cash into my Bank West Platinum credit card for cash withdrawals which was easily done (I still had to press credit) so avoiding 3% international transaction fee. For credit purchases I used 28 degrees Platinum credit card which also avoids the 3% international transaction fee, but only on credit purchases, not cash withdrawals.

TIPPING: We used this as a guide to tipping: CLICK HERE

LANGUAGE: It was fun to try to use tribal words wherever we went, particularly the Xhosa click. Locals really appreciate these efforts and it's a great ice breaker.

DATA: I used the new Telstra International Day Pass which is charged per day but only for the days you use it, for calls or data. Costs $10 per day with 100MB per day data allowance. I always use hotel wifi. Telstra International Day Pass

FOOD: South African food and wine is very good, and reasonable for Australians. Reservations are recommended at any of the better restaurants, and we were glad we'd reserved at the Shortmarket Club, Pot Luck Club, Harbour House Kalk Bay. Reservations aren't taken at the Chef's Warehouse and Canteen, and we didn't have any trouble finding a seat here for our Monday lunch.

ACTIVITIES:

Johannesburg morning tour: We preferred to see architecture and the arts scene rather than an historical tour, and Dorothy of D's Tours and Transfers came on Jo's kind recommendation for a driving tour of Sandton and the CBD. We also walked around the arts precinct of Maboneng which we thoroughly enjoyed, did the organised Constitution Hill prison tour (wouldn't do that again) and the new Constitutional Court (inspirational), with a delicious lunch at an upmarket café with a buffet of salads. If we were to do this again, we'd visit galleries or shops instead of the prison tour.

hides at Mashatu: top activity (there are two hides, Matabole has more vegetation around it, the other one is out in the open.)

photo vehicle at Mashatu and Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge: there is a photo vehicle for hire at both lodges with anchors for tripod fixings etc and it moves totally at your discretion - we didn't hire this, it's more suitable for really serious photographers.

walk/hike at Isibindi: we passed on the vertical hill hike and did a gentler one on a road - pleasant but unremarkable except that Radiance did a proper face plant into some rocks and sported a black nose for the rest of the trip. She's a toughie. I promise I didn't laugh until I was sure she was ok. -:) She says that's why I became sick - the gods were punishing me!

visit to chief's house Isibindi: very authentic and interesting but will probably stick with proprietary beer!

This is the waterhole at the other hide.